Malik Vittal's Imperial Dreams  (US) won the Audience Award in the NEXT  category, created for films that stretch limited resources to create impactful art. John Boyega (from 2011's Attack the Block) delivers another complicated and hypnotic performance as a young father trying to make good in the 'hood. In this spot-on throwback to powerful, low-budget urban films — think the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society (1991) and Spike Lee's Clockers (1995), and even back to Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time (1978) — director Vittal coaxes some spectacular acting moments, not just from Boyega but also his forlorn friends, played by De'aundre Bonds and R&B singer Rotimi. You don't want to miss this little treasure.
Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida  (Poland) — pronounced "Eeda" — is rooted in a formalistic aesthetic, complete with a 1.37 aspect ratio and a profoundly striking black and white palette. While dreary in its location, this character study of a woman in search of her own identity within a nunnery during the 1960s is anything but colorless. As I've warned with other films in my Sundance diary — stay away from plot overviews of this film. Just know that Ida has the power to affect you. This is another quiet jewel that you do not want to miss in 2014.
Geetu Mohandas' Liar's Dice  (India) is as haunting as it is mesmerizing. Hindi superstar Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Gangs of Wasseypur, 2013) helps a young woman, her daughter, and their pet goat on a grueling odyssey, first to the regional capital, Shimla, and eventually to Delhi, in search of the woman's missing husband. Gripping, difficult, and effectively abstract, this 104-minute debut feature will hopefully open doors for Mohandas to make more alternative films in the future.
Another feature debut: God Help the Girl  (UK), from Stuart Murdoch of the Brit-pop sensation Belle and Sebastian; it's inspired by his 2009 album of the same name. It's a mix of musical and magical realism, starring the phenomenal Emily Browning (from Zack Snyder's unfairly dismissed 2011 Suckerpunch), and offers an affectionate, enjoyable coming-of-age story that has shades of Stephen Chbosky's Perks of Being a Wallflower (2011). If you were 17, this might become your favorite film of all time, and could be the perfect way to get into works like Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).
Coming tomorrow: indie heroes and genre picks!